- Panda Express and Beyond Meat have teamed up to offer plant-based orange chicken.
- The twist on Panda Express’ signature item will appear in New York City and Southern California restaurants starting July 26.
- I tried the new menu item and couldn’t tell the difference between the plant-based and the real deal.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
A new menu item is coming to Panda Express this summer that’s a plant-based twist on a popular menu item.
A vegan option of Panda Express’ signature orange chicken will be offered in a brand-new partnership with Beyond Meat.
Beyond Meat just unveiled its vegan chicken offering this month and Panda Express is its first industry partner, as well as the first national Asian dining chain to offer a plant-based menu option.
I tested out the new item to see if it could live up to the original orange chicken. Here’s what I found.
I’m a huge fan of Panda Express. As an avid traveler, I seek out the chain whenever I’m in an airport and my favorite dish, unsurprisingly, is orange chicken.
It’s a dish of which I’m very protective and knew that the bar was very high for Panda Express and Beyond Meat to create a plant-based product that lived up to my high standards for the dish.
Plant-based orange chicken is the culmination of more than a year of work as Panda Express spent a lot of the pandemic focusing on giving consumers more menu options to meet emerging dietary trends.
“We’re thinking about plant-based protein, plant-based diet,” Jimmy Wang, Panda Express’ executive director of culinary product innovation, said.
“We see that people are starting to really become ‘flexitarian,'” Wang said, noting that orange chicken in its animal-based form is the chain’s most popular dish.
Beyond Meat was an ideal choice for Panda Express as the company has been pushing the bounds of what’s possible in the plant-based world. “They know what we are looking for and they love collaboration,” Wang said of Beyond Meat.
All that in mind, it was time to taste the finished product. At first look, I couldn’t tell the difference between the plant-based product and the original, animal-based orange chicken I’ve eaten countless times in the past.
After a brief introduction to the new item by Wang, it was time to tuck in.
I took one bite and was instantly hooked. The plant-based nugget had the same taste and texture as its animal-based predecessor, and I couldn’t believe there was no real meat inside.
I came in thinking that Panda Express was going to try to disguise the vegan aspect by dousing it in extra sauce but that wasn’t the case. A light coating of the sweet and sour sauce was all that accompanied the nugget.
My first vegan chicken experience was a success. It was hard to resist grabbing another one.
I went into Panda Express having never tried plant-based meats and came out a changed man.
Panda Express had given us a small box to bring home for further sampling, and the dish even held up when I ate it more than an hour later.
Stores will see the plant-based product starting July 26.
The rollout is quite limited, however, with only New York City and Southern California stores featuring it and for a limited time.
That means the airport locations that I frequent will likely not have the vegan chicken available to order.
Additional stores may include the offering if it’s successful but that remains to be seen.
Panda Express also showed off how some of its appetizers, bases, and side dishes could get a plant-based refresh.
Golden potstickers with “Beyond Beef” in addition to cabbage and scallion is one possibility. Another is a quinoa brown “cauli-fried” rice crafted with quinoa, cauliflower rice, cabbage, and scallion.
Two more plant-based entrees were shown off, though not any that incorporate Beyond Meat’s products.
One was a kung pao mushroom and potato consisting of baby king oyster mushrooms, potatoes, bell peppers, peanuts, scallion, and dried and crushed chili, coated in kung pao sauce. Another was wok-fried seasoned veggies consisting of baby broccoli, kale, and sugar snap peas, coated in a light garlic sauce.
The other was mapo eggplant tofu, a Chinese eggplant dish with eggplant, tofu, bell peppers, and scallion, coated in Sichuan peppercorn sauce.
The plant-based move is also part of Panda Express’ push to dispel myths and stereotypes about the restaurant.
One such myth is that Panda Express food is cooked in a microwave
Panda Express says the myth remains even as some locations have an open chicken where patrons can see the food being cooked.
It’s not clear whether all of Panda Express’ traditional menu items would work with Beyond Meat’s plant-based formulas, Wang says, but the chain will certainly try.
Fans of the original animal-based product can rejoice the chain will likely offer both options to satisfy all of its customers.
But one thing is clear: the more things are changing at Panda Express, the more they are staying the same in terms of taste.